May 26th, 2011 | Uncategorized

Yalies win Thiel Fellowship (UPDATED)

UPDATED: Saturday, 11:32 a.m. Four Yale students will each receive $100,000 to leave school for two years and try their hand at entrepreneurship.

Darren Zhu ’13, Daniel Friedman ’13, Paul Gu ’13 and David Luan ’13 are among 24 recipients of the first annual 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, according to a May 25 press release by the Thiel Foundation. The fellowship provides money for budding entrepreneurs under the age of 20 to “pursue innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow,” the press release said.

Upon the condition that they forgo other employment or enrollment in school, each fellow receives $100,000 over two years as well as mentorship from tech innovators, according to the fellowship rules on the Thiel Foundation website.

The Yale winners’ projects are in the areas of career development, biotechnology and robotics.

Luan wants to create home robots that perform chores and some cognitive tasks, and Zhu plans to work on building a diagnostic biosensor, the press release said.

Friedman and Gu will work as a team with Arizona State University graduate Eric McKay to rethink how companies do recruiting.

Other Thiel Fellows will develop start-ups related to education, energy, finance and outer space, among other areas.

“We’re trying to revolutionize the way that talent and people are evaluated,” Gu said of his project in an interview Wednesday night. He said the typical methods used to assess job applicants, such as resumes and interviews, are “very rough heuristics” that do not accurately measure people’s abilities.

“You can’t measure entire categories of things, like how hard a worker a person is. It’s easy for someone to be very charismatic [in an interview] but have no persistence when they approach their work,” Gu said.

But this information about applicants — how well they work with others, how diligent they are, and so forth — can be gathered from people who know the applicants and collected to form “reputation graphs,” he and Friedman said.

“If you take everyone who knows a person and you find out what they think about that person, and you sort of weight everything accordingly, then you can get a pretty accurate picture of what that person is like,” Friedman said.

Their group currently has a website that will eventually run their new evaluation mechanism, and they will begin to work full-time on the project in August, Gu said.

Zhu’s project is in the field of synthetic biology, which involves creating “useful and innovative biological systems” through bioengineering, Zhu said in an interview on Friday.

Specifically, Zhu hopes to create a “synthetic biology-based biosensor” that would be able to detect a certain infectious parasite by recognizing enzymes that the parasite produces, he said.

He said he is in the process of finding lab space in Silicon Valley for his research, as well as reaching out to researchers and biotech entrepreneurs that he could collaborate with.

Luan, the fourth Yale recipient of the Thiel Fellowship, could not be reached for comment.

The fellowship, which was announced by tech investor and former PayPal CEO Peter Thiel last October, has received some criticism for encouraging students to quit school to work on start-ups. But the three Yale recipients interviewed said they saw the fellowship as a unique opportunity.

“This is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where someone is willing to give you initial funding and one of the biggest networks of entrepreneurs and investors that exist in the world,” Gu said. “That kind of opportunity is very difficult to turn down.”

Gu and Friedman both said they forsee returning to Yale to finish their degrees eventually.

Zhu said he is “definitely still open to returning to Yale,” though his plans will depend on what happens in the next two years. He said that in the area of biotech, the process of launching a start-up “takes a really long time” and would generally happen after receiving a Ph.D. and doing research in an academic lab.

“Coming into college in general I was really interested in entrepreneurship and start-up work,” Zhu said. “This could be an opportunity for me to pursue my dreams of setting up a company early on.”

The fellowship was originally meant to fund 20 people. Twenty-four recipients were eventually chosen from a pool of over 400 applicants, since it was “impossible to pick only twenty,” James O’Neill, the head of the Thiel Foundation, said in the press release.

The Thiel Foundation is a nonprofit organization that “defends and promotes freedom in all its dimensions,” which includes supporting innovations in science and technology, according to its website.